Sir David Bell: efficiency is crucial for serving universities’ core mission

Sir David Bell
Sir David Bell: (credit: University of Reading)
As we anticipate the publication of the efficiency review, vice chancellor Sir David Bell explains to Rosie Niven that a university’s core mission is learning and research, and that efficiency is never an end in itself.

As someone who has worked at senior levels in central and local government as well as higher education, Sir David is no stranger to public sector efficiency programmes.

Prior to joining the University of Reading as vice-chancellor, Sir David was permanent secretary at the Department of Education, following a career that included three and a half years as chief inspector of schools. So naturally he brings to the table a wealth of experience from other sectors to any discussion on achieving efficiency and effectiveness in higher education

“It is always really easy to start things up in any organisation,” he notes. “It is quite a bit harder to stop doing things.

“Local government I think is a really interesting example of where really hard decisions have been made. Part of efficiency and effectiveness is about getting better value from what you are doing, but we also have to face up to the things we can’t afford to do.”

The future of funding: challenge or opportunity?

With the increasing importance of students fees to the sector, there has been a renewed focus how students benefit from “efficient universities”. Professor Sir Ian Diamond, who leads the efficiency review, has suggested that students do benefit, and Sir David says he agrees with this notion.

“There are benefits for students, benefits for academic staff and one might say there are benefits for the nation more generally,” he says. “Efficiency is crucial because it maximises the funding that goes towards the core missions of universities, principally research and teaching.”

Sir David reflected on some challenges and opportunities in the evolving funding environment. “I think there is a lot of concern and consideration being given across universities about how they can replace what might have been seen as traditional state-led capital support,” he says. “I also think that there is an opening and an opportunity for interested private investors who want to come in and enable partnership with universities to sustain investment in ways in ways that would never be funded by state, at least not in the foreseeable future.

“There are real challenges but it can unleash imagination on the part of universities to find investment in the future.”

Students as consumers

Some have suggested that changes to higher education over the past few years have made students more discerning – and more demanding – in their choices.

However, Sir David says that in his experience, the situation is more complicated than people might think.

“We see students most obviously acting as consumers when they are making a choice about which university they should attend. Universities have reacted and responded accordingly by increasing marketing budgets, by ensuring facilities are good when they come to look at them.

“I think we need to be more sophisticated in our understanding of the different behaviours that students exhibit once they are at universities, sometimes acting sharply as customers, other times they see themselves as partners in the learning they undertake.

“I think that the other thing that has happened is students are putting more demands on themselves. They are very savvy and they understand the value of their higher education. They are going out into a competitive jobs market and therefore I think they work harder.”

Sir David says that universities are responding to the needs of the more demanding modern student population by opening libraries longer, making better use of buildings and investing in quality of student accommodation and leisure facilities.

But while he sees evidence of this sharpness of competition and students’ increased demands, he adds that he is wary of overstating this notion of students as a mere customer. “Students behave in a variety of different ways while at universities, but certainly there is greater awareness of the value of being there.”

Imaginative collaboration

Universities collaborating by sharing research facilities is one of the activities highlighted in the forthcoming efficiency report and Sir David says collaborative working is one way higher education can improve what it is doing, including in relation to equipment and facilities or procurement. He observes that higher education is now catching up with other sectors when it comes to collaboration.

“I think people are much more amiable to it and we have seen that on equipment sharing and consortium arrangements for purchasing,” he says. “It is not always straightforward to do but people look now at least at at opportunities to share in ways in which they wouldn’t have instinctively looked at in the past.”

“We see now a more competitive dimension when it comes to student recruitment but at the same time universities collaborate across many spheres,” he adds. “We have got some real examples, I think, of what the UK higher education can be very proud of.”

Going global

This year sees the launch of Reading’s campus in Malaysia, which is part of the University’s ambitious internationalisation strategy.

Sir David says this provides a good example of the institutional autonomy enjoyed by UK universities,where they are free to make those kind of business decisions. He adds that it also highlights the global reach of UK higher education.

A key priority for Sir David is to maintain the University’s position as one of the top 1% globally and he says that this institutional autonomy coupled with academic freedom makes UK higher education “one of the most distinguished and respected in the world”.

Not businesses, but business-like

In an interview for Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Sir David talked about the similarities between universities and multinational businesses. “I think it is important to be clear, universities are not businesses,” he explains. “Universities are first and foremost institutions of learning and research. However, we have to operate in a way that is very business-like.”

“I think that it is one of those very interesting challenges to university staff. You want to hold on and hold fast to the core mission of the universities, but you have to operate in ways that are more sophisticated in business terms than ever before.

“So I think it places new demands on universities, not merely running an educational institution and not merely running a business. We have to combine the two and I think it is a big ask of university leaders and an important feature of all the working being done on efficiency and effectiveness.”

Yet, as universities are asked to become more efficient and effective, Sir David says it is important to remember the reasons behind this agenda.

“Our core mission is teaching and research, research and teaching and all we do is to serve the core mission,” he explains. “There is a tendency to think that efficiency is an end in itself. It is not an end in itself but a means to an end.”

Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange